Letter from Orleans Parish DA Leon Cannizzaro: Advocate 'candy snatcher' story 'shameful' _lowres

Advocate staff photo by A.J. SISCO -- Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro.

The New Orleans City Council on Thursday blasted District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office for jailing victims of rape and domestic violence in an effort to force them to testify against their attackers.

The council passed a resolution condemning the practice, stepping up the pressure that advocacy groups have been putting on Cannizzaro's office in recent weeks to discontinue the use of "material witness" warrants to hold victims in the jail. 

The nonprofit Court Watch NOLA organization has called on Cannizzaro to stop the practice.

The council vote was 6-1. The resolution has no legal force. 

"This resolution, after the DA has shown us he is not willing to work collaboratively, is the only way forward," Councilman Jason Williams said. "I’m not willing to sit back while another rape victim goes to (parish jail), regardless of what the DA says."

In a statement issued after the vote, Cannizzaro fired back, saying the City Council members should "focus their attention on a violent crime problem that is spiraling out of control and homicide clearance rate that is rapidly declining."

He said only six people were arrested on material witness warrants last year, and only one of those cases involved rape or domestic violence.

Referring to a case in which a person accused of domestic violence was found not guilty because the victim refused to testify, Cannizzaro said: "Decisions to seek material witness warrants are not made carelessly. I must balance the concerns of the victim with the safety of a community that is being torn apart by violent crime.

"The six council members who voted in favor of this resolution either are ignorant of the fact or — perhaps even more frighteningly — simply do not care that in each of the six cases identified in Court Watch NOLA’s report, my office was forced to choose between seeking a material witness warrant or releasing a dangerous predator back on the streets."

Stacy Head was the only council member to vote against the measure, arguing that formally criticizing an office run by an independently elected official broke with past precedent.

It's not uncommon, however, for the council to pass resolutions about the practices of other government agencies, including resolutions blasting Sheriff Marlin Gusman for various issues involving the jail. Head has supported those measures.

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Advocate file photo by Matthew Hinton -- New Orleans City Council members Stacy Head and Susan Guidry, pictured here in council chambers in Oct. 2016. 

She said later she was not defending Cannizzaro’s tactics but wanted more information and investigation by the City Council.

“These new allegations against the DA are horrific, but at this point I don’t know how thoroughly we’ve worked with the DA to get them to change,” Head said.

Cannizzaro's office also has come under fire for sending out fake subpoenas, which falsely threatened fines or jail time if witnesses did not show up in court. Prosecutors in both Orleans and Jefferson parishes have used that tactic, and have recently vowed to stop.

In discussing the issue, Williams referred to an essay by Deborah Cotton published on The New York Times' website Thursday harshly criticizing Cannizzaro. Cotton, who was injured in the 2013 Mother's Day second-line shooting, died Tuesday as a result of those injuries.

"Arresting victims for failing to testify for the prosecution fosters a sense of powerlessness by further victimizing the person," Cotton wrote. "And it is a show of aggression by our elected officials who are supposed to be the authorities we turn to so that our sense of stability in our community can be restored."

Councilwoman Susan Guidry, who heads the council's Criminal Justice Committee, accused Cannizzaro of putting a desire to win cases over the well-being of victims. 

District attorneys around the country are given the power to issue material witness warrants, "but they do not do it or they only do it in the most rare circumstances because they understand it is not their place to just win cases," Guidry said.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​